Documentary reveals larger trend of historical inaccuracy

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I saw "The Odyssey of Captain Healy" - Michael Healy, first part-black to command a U.S. ship, and for decades a northwest-coastal legend - in February on Washington, D.C.'s Howard University Television (WHUT). Made by Oakland-based Waterfront Soundings Productions, it's an affecting bio with themes including racism's injustice and stupidity; how a strong man of achievement and integrity suffers from conspiring lesser men and evolving social mores; and how even such a man has faults aiding his fall.

"Odyssey," though a minor presentation, exemplifies how PBS docs, unlike newspapers even in the net-archiving age, long and regularly recur, out front. (By the way, WHUT, at traditionally black Howard University, is regrettably part of PBS' almost-universal rabid refusal to admit and correct errors. WHUT chief and former PBS exec Jennifer Lawson refused at length last year to admit Napoleon was Joseph Bonaparte's younger, not older brother, and correct WHUT's site's error. Months earlier, up the road, Maryland Public Television (MPT) presented "For Love of Liberty," an important four-hour tribute to black military service, with dozens of Hollywood stars. It'll long and widely air - many errors and all. MPT Vice President Joe Krushinsky, incipiently collaborating against errors in 2009, admitted he'd be purged in any serious attempt to raise standards. So ended contact.)

To Healy. One-sixteenth black, both parents dead by 11, he'd be a slave if not sent North. Even there, his "liability" known, he suffered some, and went to sea at 15, from nothing (and his "secret" now unknown) becoming a uniquely respected captain of the Revenue Cutter Service, precursor to the Coast Guard. In 1894, The New York Sun called him America's power of attorney from San Francisco north to Alaska and better known and respected there than presidents. Among many achievements, he imported Siberian reindeer to alleviate Eskimo famine.

Too bad "Odyssey" is flawed in both commission and omission, unadjusted by even a screen caption since 1999 debut. (I've never seen a factual-corrective caption on PBS, and have maybe 1,000 needed examples after three years' light sampling.) Startling to common sense and basic knowledge is Alaska's "30,000-mile coastline." The same description, sometimes with "shore" or "shoreline" replacing "coast" or "coastline" (this does matter technically, it turns out), appears on many PBS sites.

Did no "editor" realize - something we must ask constantly of "top" media - that 30,000 miles is, e.g., 10 times the distance across the contiguous U.S. on a long diagonal, and greater than Earth's circumference? That's some coast, even for Alaska with its Aleutians and southeast arm.

Alaska's "general coastline" - what geography calls length of general outline - is commonly listed as (still amazing) 5,580 to 6,640 miles. Usually I'd reckon the above the conceptual incompetence PBS often adds to technical incompetence, and it partly is. But there is more than 30,000 miles of what geography calls "tidal shoreline" - often many times general coastline. The U.S. Atlantic coast is cited 2,069 general, 28,673 miles tidal. Unexplained tidal figures almost necessarily mislead the many that PBS is supposed to educate. Just a few explanatory words could've served much better - if the esoteric ultra-figure even had to be used.

Omissions can also be errors. Among others here, most remarkable in a Healy-sympathetic piece is representation that Healy's career ended in 1900 with his second suspension, sending him brokenly straight to his end. His falls were informed by creeping alcoholism and disregard of sensitivities that growing genteel society wouldn't spot even a hard old-school leader. But he regained command withal - cutter Thetis - and beloved Alaska duty under Teddy Roosevelt (perhaps reflecting TR's admiration for enterprising mariners, which also touched Joshua Slocum even after a humiliating conviction). Healy retired honorably after all.

Despite Healy's fame in his time, he didn't remain salient. It's good the documentary exists. But it stumbles in factual content, even as many of even PBS' top, prestigious products do much worse. Request a few hundred cases from PBS alone, UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism; maybe we'll talk; but only if you can accept an unpopular independent was all over a huge journalism-wide reality you missed.

Often, as perhaps my studies' most important part, I document response from PBS outlets, as from others. I almost didn't here, as "Odyssey" lacked common blue-chip backing. But I spent 10 seconds on KQED's website, where "Odyssey" is sold, and saw a misstatement of Healy's death year. I'd never contacted KQED, so ...

Staffer Carol Cicerone claimed the error likely correct because, no kidding, some blog has it; never mind, for starters, a full-on Healy book and the National Archives stating the year correctly. (Perversely, she unknowingly had a point about top sources.) Who else was right? Wait for it, "Odyssey" itself. Still she grimly hung in, saying the blog looked sound for having a (pasted) Coast Guard logo. She finally admitted and corrected the error (sort of; claiming a web issue will likely "overwrite" correction), but nastily hung up when I suggested professional reflection on that initial, programmed denial reflex.

And that pales next to PBS' "flagships'" behaviors, with one exception. PBS' "best" have refused to admit hundreds of error-busting facts such as (what to pick?) Richard Nixon being elected president in 1968, Spiro Agnew not being the first vice president to resign, 2 times 20 being 40, not 60; the Andes not topping 25,000 feet, and October not being spring in most of Africa.

As for the real Coast Guard, I was at first nicely surprised by its deputy historian, Scott Price, correcting without argument the same Healy-death error in a source Cicerone could better have cited - a Healy series by a United States Coast Guard Academy professor and USCGA's librarian. But even here, hatred of correction, however professional or simple, was clear and hard: Price repeatedly, and as recently as last week, refused a one-sentence letterhead acknowledgment of correction for my files.

USCG contrasts (just staying maritime) recent Marine and Navy behavior. A prominent United States Marine Corps site claimed the Grenada fight was in 1985 and Haiti's January 2010 quake was in the future ("September 2010," displayed earlier). These were corrected after crazy responses including threatening me with NCIS (please send the pretty gal; no, not the funky kid). After more sad misconducts from command colonels, one, Donald Hales, still wouldn't admit wrong the same page's claim Marine peacekeepers entered Kosovo in 1998 (no; after 1999's air war on Serbia). There the Few and Proud draw the line on corrections, a Chosin-worthy stand. Does military performance and honor gain from such decrepitude? Whither the rhetoric of intense heuristic self-examination, truth over stupid egos? If they can't admit this ...

The Navy, among varied examples, has errors around historical showpiece USS Constitution, from battles and cannons to (I've since calculated) an apparent huge lie on tourist attendance. It bars discussion let alone correction - and not only made Navy magazine renege written commitment to publish my report in last July's issue, but without notice. Later, in his only communication, just a few words, the editor said "legal advice" stopped publication. Legal advice - about cannon and old, winning battles. So goes War on Error. For now.

Tags: ERRORS, MICHAEL HEALY, PBS


Mark Powell specializes in documenting error. Contact him at [email protected]



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